(Photos: Mabou Mines)
By Bob Shuman
Some of us had never seen Lee Breuer, who died January 3, working without a stocking cap—but what is probably most surprising is that we saw a playwright, this hands-on, at all. In 2010, upon early audience entry, at New York Theatre Workshop, he clarified tech, behind a huge plywood board, for his double-bill of monologues Pataphysics Penyeach (“Summa Dramatica” and“Porco Morto”). In 2013, with La Divina Caricatura, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog, at La MaMa, there was a question as to whether he might even be seen, as press performances were canceled due to his illness. He appeared, hustling through the impersonal subway tracks of the set, though, where a dog had been abandoned. That animal, Rose, a puppet, also the star of the show, caused a visceral reaction, when she began eating “poop,” a polite way of naming the grotesque situation—one this reviewer categorized as an aberrant absurdist element, while still shuddering. Much later, now the owner of two Jack Russell terriers, one who had been deserted on a highway in South Carolina, the truth of the writing emerged. Although our dogs are now ensconced in Massachusetts during the pandemic, for several years, Breuer remained on my mind often, his visual observation about pets acute, disgusting, and pervasive.
He was part of the East Village zeitgeist—I should say he was our Peter Brook. Mabou Mines offered performance based on hard theatrical theory and experience, not simple propaganda, although clearly leftist. Breuer volunteered at the Berliner Ensemble, under Communism, worked with Grotowski, adapted Beckett, and more, to give his work an international edge. It’s impossible to think of the American avant-garde, without him. Tracking our way back from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, along Seventh Avenue to Forty-Second Street, in 1988, someone, talking about the chorus, was saying how you weren’t “going to ask those big, mature Black women to do a lot of choreography,” as we understood musicals then, when someone noted the stately stage progressions, in The Gospel at Colonus. The voices moved the audience, and caused them to dance, instead. Lee Breuer was, almost inarguably, America’s finest theatre practitioner at the end of the twentieth century and early twenty-first, mainstream or otherwise. His aesthetic was so fully formed, centered, and grounded, in fact, that it seems an injustice to say that he was an experimental director. It’s better to describe him as a seminal one.
In a July 2020 Zoom interview from Segal Talks, hosted by Frank Hentschker, with Maude Mitchell, Breuer macrocosmically talked about playwriting, music:
“I wanted to get this feeling of everyone contributing their melody to a larger whole, and that there would be a form that would arise from it. I think music is the key to it. I think if we can feel that all the currents–political, aesthetic—are joining together to make a statement–and if you can discern what that statement is–that you will have achieved a tremendous revelation about what our times and what our lives now are all about.”
Breuer’s statements could expose internal horror about the American and human condition, combining humor with the monstrous, as he did with Pataphysics Penyeach, which used children’s storybook and cartoon characters facing contemporary political and sociological existence. Back in 2010, he seemed to pinpoint how we had been overwhelmed by the technological: “Reality is not real,” a distinguished professor, a cow, tells us “—it’s virtual.” The play demonstrated a “spin” on French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics (a “send up of metaphysics”).
According to Breuer, in a 2007 video conversation at Towson University, theatre only exists half the time on the stage; the other half takes place in the head. The viewer is choosing the play’s message after “balancing the work’s thesis and antithesis.” The synthesizing process is apparent in a work like Pataphysics Penyeach because, through the ridiculous and cerebral, one attempts to decipher the meaning, to make sense of the divergent inputs, holding on in the hope of unmasking the secret of the piece. Steadily looking for metaphor, in “Porco Morto,” the second one act in the evening, Breuer turned the concept of “capitalist pigs” into a playlet about a piglet, who talks like Porky Pig.
For those drawn to the stage of Lee Breuer, part of its appeal must be his interest in the viewer as thinker, not simply as blank page—he was an intellectual theorist himself, not only a defender of theory, whether Marxist, Feminist, Market, or other. Breuer’s is a formidable intelligence to be openly missed; irreplaceable, still to be reckoned with, and learned from.
Don’t cover it up.
© 2021 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Visit Mabou Mines.
Two Breuer Reviews from Stage Voices:
Posted: 27 Dec 2013 07:22 PM PST
The most beautiful woman in New York theatre this season is not Rachel Weisz, Felicia Boswell, Laura Osnes, or Anne-Marie Duff (OK, relax Kinky Boots, we’ll name Billy Porter, too). Instead, she’s a mutt, named Rose (Bernadine Mitchell), the central character of Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog. That Rose is part of a puppet ensemble, may even complicate the eligibility of my candidate, but I can say that she brings deep, universal issues, concerning identity, to meditate on and that, unlike Miss Piggy, she is not involved in a project for children (note director Breuer’s anatomically incorrect dolls, adult content, and mature situations: “I slipped out of my collar”; “I wee-wee’d on the futon”; “Let’s drop some acid”). Rose, rather, has earned her right to our choice through her abandonments, abuses, and co-dependencies—by this writing, the short run of her show is even over (it closed December 22 at La Mama). Her plot is said to draw upon the Hindu Mahabharata: but no one needs to know anything about the Indian epic to enter into and be nourished by this play (it seems impossible to imagine that the show wouldn’t be performed again in New York sometime by somebody, too).
Lee Breuer is, almost inarguably, America’s finest current theatre practitioner, mainstream or otherwise. His aesthetic is so fully formed, centered, and grounded, in fact, that, at this point, it seems an injustice to say that he is an experimental director. It’s better to describe him as a seminal one, who most of the time (I’ve only ever seen him in the winter, actually) happens to wear a stocking cap, hoodie, and sneakers; still tinkering with his stage a few minutes before curtain. His texts ask us to unpack a major metaphor or build a pivotal simile (we’ll be working with smaller ones along the way, too); he asks us to figure them out, as if we are participating in the explication of a living poem. It is a challenging and absorbing theatre idea and game, and viewers get the gradual feeling that they’re subconsciously putting together a puzzle. The writing may be witty, psychoanalytic, stream of conscious, rap, punning, philosophic, or banal—Breuer thinks that to see beauty one must also know what’s ugly, violent, and coarse (as a kid, he must have been the one noticing the iridescent colors of oil or gasoline in a roadside puddle). This is often leavened, during La Divina Caricatura, by Lincoln Schleifer’s fabulous ‘60s-sounding music; this show is a musical, too, often sung by thrilling trios of male (The Poppers) and female (The Wild Women) doo-wop and soul singers (who give solos and sing as a group, as well). The background band needs mention, too–the professionalism of extremely fine musicians taking us from jazz to tangos to cha-chas. One song, written as Rose is taken for a walk at the end of act one, ends far too soon; it’s so relaxed, free, and joyous; would that it had never stopped. The “found objects” set design, which unfolds from a subway station to LAX, a rabbit hole, and beyond, is by Alison Yerxa.
Of course, it is possible to mistake puppets for human beings here, and vice versa, and much of this amazing feat is owed to the puppeteers working under the direction of Jessica Scott. No one, however, can mistake the imprimatur of Breuer, who has been evolving the vision of La Divina Caricatura since 1979. Similarly, like the actresses mentioned at the beginning of this review, no one is quite as extraordinary as the divine Ms. Mitchell, who, through song or dialogue, can instantaneously turn a word into feeling. She convinces us that even mundane thoughts really are things, which can, and probably must, be transcended and changed, especially in a world that has gone to the dogs.
Also with: John Margolis, Maude Mitchell, Greg Mehrten, Karen Kandel, Paul Kandel, Terry O’Reilly, Daniel K. Isaac, Eamonn Ferrell, Jessica Weinstein
The Poppers: Benjamin Alexander Odom, Gene Stewart, Roy Bennett, Lee Williams
The Wild Women: Maxine Brown, Beverly Crosby, Sherryl Marshall
Musicians: Bill Holloman, John Korba, Denny McDermott, Lincoln Schleifer, Gary Sieger, Foley-Alex Klimovitsky
Puppeteers: Eric F. Avery, Stefano Brancato, Kate Brehm, Emily DeCola, Tom Lee, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Brendan McMahon, Terry O’Reilly, Sarah Provost, Amanda Villalobos, Jessica Weinstein, Katie Melby, Kelley Selznick, Jessica Simon
Press: Emily Reilly, Blake Zidell/Blake Zidell & Associates
© by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
LEE BREUER: ‘PATAPHYSICS PENYEACH’ (REVIEW)
In Absurdist theatre the emphasis is placed on behavior—witness Ionesco’s bourgeois dullards in The Bald Soprano, for example, or, in several of Tina Howe’s plays, characters fixated on making art. Lee Breuer, however, isn’t much interested in that (his stationary cast might be headed by a puppet or be used to play the back end of a farm animal). Unlike those of the other playwright’s mentioned, his characters’ communication faculties don’t fail either. Animals they may be, but they’re articulate and cogent, even if what they’re examining–the monstrous human soul–is a place where we’re more likely to meet an anime figure rather than God. Breuer’s double bill of monologues, Pataphysics Penyeach, currently at New York Theatre Workshop through January 31, is an example of a rarely used style giving due to the space beyond the metaphysical (‘Pataphysics, defined by Webster’s, is Jarry’s notion—“expounded upon by other French absurdist writers as a parody of modern science”). Even if they’re only metaphors, though, these creations are free to formulate their own worlds. For example, if one were to conjecture that American society was inhabited by capitalist pigs (not so unusual a sentiment from the Left)–a character might turn out to be a literal swine, which is exactly the state of affairs in the second one act here, Porco Morto. Given that it is 2010 and the U.S., with a collapsing newspaper industry, is in recession–it is not very strange that we’re presented with a depressed reader of The New York Times (Greg Mehrten), albeit one that stutters, as if Porky Pig had been sent to Harvard.
In both monologues, Breuer is examining the cartoon within, or cartoon as soul—in the first, an academician, who happens to be a cow, and whose top-half is played with incise professorial hauteur by Obie winner Ruth Maleczech, tells us that the “psyche lives in limbus.” She asks, “What is God’s action?” and tells us that “Reality is not real—it’s virtual.” “If it works” she also contends, “it must be unreal.” The plays are free-floating Rorschach tests–acted by performers of immense focus and stamina–where we analyze our responses to a daffy mindstream taken perfectly seriously. The mashed combination of scientific theory, acting technique, and Eastern thought may be profound or inconsequential: we decide. I can tell you several places where I thought Breuer wasn’t playing with our minds, though. One was where, bewildered, his character wonders why writers who go to the theatre see themselves as reviewers and not reporters. And the other is the finality of his observation: “Truth is not beautiful.”
The evening is fun and horrific, intellectual and sophomoric, coarse and rich—but what else would one expect when exposing the mind to the ridiculous? It’s also rather freeing to disconnect from the patterns that the entire society has taken up as we toggle from Twitter to Facebook, the Drudge Report to blogs. Maybe this is where theatre can become relevant again—in its ability to circuit break virtual reality, which only seems to be making us more conformist. Society and our humanity have devolved and been reduced Breuer seems to be saying; more than ever, we’re all been dumbed down. On the freezing night I saw Pataphyscis Penyeach, the East Village was especially deserted. One of the waiters at Gandhi restaurant on East 6th Street, where several other Indian restaurants have recently closed, said, “Times are tough.” Having just come out of the play, more reporter than critic, I extended the metaphor, “These are tough times for the American mind, too.”
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
Pataphysics Penyeach by Lee Breuer:
Summa Dramatica & Porco Morto